Tag Archives: New Wave

Rock N’ Read: Complicated Game Inside The Songs of XTC

‘I think it was the middle of 2000 when I was introduced to XTC via the band’s final swan song APPLE VENUS VOLUME 2 (WASP STAR). I remember being totally blown away by the band and eagerly devoured that album as well as the 1999 release APPLE VENUS VOLUME 1. I’ve always been a fan of lush, literate pop songs and that happens to be XTC’s specialty. I dove head first into XTC’s back catalogue and was surprised to learn that the band start out as a punk/New Wave outfit before slowly morphing into a Beatle-esque pop band. One of the reason the band never took off is because the band famously stopped touring due to lead singer/songwriter Andy Partridge’s stage fright. Partridge retreated from the spotlight after 2000 and the band only popped up on my radar occasionally when they released a smattering of demos and alternate takes of their previous output. The band remained a bit of a mystery to me, outside of their music for years, and other than one grizzled-looking CD Warehouse employee I never met anyone that seemed to be aware of them. I recently learned that Partridge has stepped back into the spotlight a bit via Twitter and writing for a few other artists (namely The Monkees whose new album I have previously reviewed).

XTC-Andy-Partridge-cover.jpg.CROP.promovar-mediumlarge

Writer Todd Bernhardt has spent the past decade interviewing Partridge on many of XTC’s greatest songs. Apparently, these interviews were posted on a now-defunct fan website. His book Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC collects and expands upon these interviews. This sort of book, a back and forth conversation between a writer/reporter and an artist, is probably my favorite type of long-form music writing. I love hearing an artist talk at length about their work. I eagerly dove into the book, ready to finally get insight into some of my all-time favorite pop songs. And to that end, Complicated Game succeeds in spades. My only issue with the book is that it dives very deep into the mechanics of these songs. If you’re a musician and a can follow Bernhardt and Partridge’s conversation about chord changes and keyboard filters, then this book will be a treasure trove of information. If, however, you aren’t a musician and are a bit of a dunce like me you’re going to be a bit lost in a good chunk of the book. There are great behind the scenes tales and for the most part, Partridge answers all of Bernhardt’s questions with honesty and aplomb (no dodging here).

The best chapters focused on the band’s most famous song and one of their more obscure songs. I found the chapter on “Dear God” to be highly illuminating. “Dear God” has fascinated me for many reasons and I was very interested in learning about the song’s development and the how and why it was initially left off of the band’s album SKYLARKING (and how it got added back once the song took off and became XTC’s biggest hit). The reasons behind its omission aren’t quite what I was expecting and its addition to the tightly structured concept album SKYLARKING is less problematic than I’d always considered. The chapter on one of XTC’s side project The Dukes of Stratosphere songs was also very intriguing. I’d always wanted to know how the psychedelic alter-ego band came about and how this project’s songs were crafted. Those two chapters made Complicated Game worth every penny for me. The insight provided into the band’s other songs were interesting as well, though there were a few songs not covered that I’d have liked to have read about. The book also spends quite a bit of time discussing Swindon, the English town where Partridge lives and wrote about extensively in many of XTC’s songs. I’d always pictured a Kinks-esque VILLAGE GREEN type hamlet but Complicated Game paints a more realistic version. I was a bit disappointed that the band’s bassist, Colin Moulding, didn’t get as many props from Partridge as I’d have thought. Sure, Andy was generous on more than a few occasions when discussing Moulding’s bass parts…but he didn’t gush the way I’d have thought. I know the two had a bit of a falling out, but this still struck me as odd. Perhaps I’m a bit too sensitive when it comes to Moulding, whom I have always felt was an overlooked genius.

I’d recommend this book to only the hardest of hardcore XTC/Andy Partridge fans. I think that if you’re a huge fan hungering for more information on the band and their creative process, you should check this book out right away. If you’re a casual fan or someone unwilling to sift through some serious technical music-talk, then you should proceed with caution. Andy Partridge is a humble genius and much of the discussion found in Complicated Game will go over your head (it went over mine). There are a few songs/chapters where Andy’s recollections are a bit on the sparse side, but even when the songwriter can’t recall every single detail he’s able to provide a lot of insightful analysis of the song. Lastly, I very much doubt that Mr. Partridge will happen upon this review, but if he does (or if Mr. Bernhardt sees this) I’d very much like to convey to him how happy I would be if he were put out brand-new music. Demos and fuzzy warbles are fun, but nothing beats fully-finished tunes. The song he penned for the latest Monkees album was a slice of brilliance the world needs more of these days.

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“Grass” by XTC

“It would shock you, too/the things we used to do on grass…”

Though Andy Partridge is the lead-mad genius of British New Wave rocker XTC, my all-time favorite song by the band was written and sung by Colin Moulding.  The lighthearted, easygoing bassist was very much the McCartney in XTC.  His songs are guided more by the heart than the more cerebral, neurotic songs written by Partridge.  Of the two, Moulding is very much the one who comes across as an average bloke, the sort of guy you could have a beer with down at the pub.  That’s not to say Moulding was incapable to complex, witty, psychedelic numbers like Partridge.

xtc-grass-virgin

Moulding’s song “Grass” off the band’s 1986 album SKYLARKING is my favorite XTC song for a couple of reasons. For one, its surreal, psychedelic sweep is beyond splendid. The song opens with a sweeping string arrangement and chirping bird sounds (the album does anyway, the single version doesn’t have the sound effects). Lyrically, the song is both about having sex in a field and having sex while under the influence of marijuana.  The song is loaded with delightful double-entrees that are cute and not skeevy like I’m making it sound.  While it’s by no means high poetry, I’ve always enjoyed the cheeky, very British, wordplay of “Grass.”

“Grass” was written and recorded in the late 1980’s, at a time when it was pretty uncool to like The Beatles. Sure, there were bands like Tears For Fears mining The Beatles pop territory, but it was done in a most un-Beatle way. “Grass” was a desperate stab at a much-needed American hit single.  The song got XTC a hit in the States, but not in the way the band predicted: DJ’s ignored “Grass” and made the song’s b-side “Dear God” a surprise hit instead.  Produced by super-producer Todd Rundgren, the song never got it’s due in my opinion.  I think “Dear God” is a very good song, but by no means as representative of XTC and what the band stood for as “Grass.”

A great way to start Spring, enjoy “Grass”:

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Classic Albums Revisited: JESUS OF COOL

Snarky, sarcastic, New Wave-Brit: Elvis Costello.  Right?  Well that description could also apply to a one Mr. Nick Lowe.   During the mid-1970’s Lowe produced the first five Costello records, including the astounding MY AIM IS TRUE.  Little did many in the listening public know of the power behind Costello’s throne.  In 1978, Nick Lowe unleashed his first album as a solo-artist: JESUS OF COOL.  While many were no doubt caught off guard, those in the know had Lowe on their radar even before he was helping Costello.  During the early 1970’s Lowe was in the band Brinsley Schwarz, a fun little pub-band that quickly made a name for themselves by opening for bands bigger than the bar room circuit. Lowe bailed on them and entered into an on-again off-again relationship with another band called Rockpile.  That band recorded four albums, though they only put out one officially (the others were released as a pair of Dave Edmunds solo records, while another eventually came out as Lowe’s second album LABOUR OF LUST).

It’s not blasphemy if it’s true, people.

So it’s not understatement that Lowe’s a man with a complicated musical pedigree.  JESUS OF COOL has a similarly complicated history.  The album was released in the UK and then issued in the USA as PURE POP FOR NOW PEOPLE.  This is presumably because us Yanks have trouble with cheeky-references to Christ.  It was a gutless move on the label’s part, but for Lowe it was just par for the course.  It was also super-ironic considering the content of the album. You see, JESUS OF COOL is a power-pop record in the finest sense of the term.  Bright, hooky, and fun as hell…but the record is almost entirely about how greedy and petty music industry is.  Lowe’s bite is just as sharp as his pop sensibility and JESUS OF COOL is the kind of record you can’t help but sing along-to.  You can’t help but tap your foot and smile, then you realize  what he’s singing about…and you’re kind of horrified.

The song the best encapsulates this, and JESUS OF COOL as a whole,  is “Shake and Pop.”   The song is a hilarious story-song that chronicles the rising fame (and subsequent fucking) of a band by the music industry.  The best, and most telling, line of the song is:  “Arista says they love you/but the kids can’t dance to it.”  One can almost close their eyes and see a bunch of old, fat, out-of-touch suits saying just that to Elvis Costello…and Nick Lowe.  Besides name-checking a bunch of massive record labels, “Shake and Pop” also pokes fun at the fickleness of music journalists.  And while “Shake and Pop” might come off as brash, it’s tame compared to the biting-the-hand-that-feeds awesomeness of “I Love My Label.”  In an age when musicians were simply not heard (at all) without major corporate sponsorship, Lowe’s first album included this sarcastic love song dedicated to his record company.  There was no Internet or social media for Lowe to embrace or hide behind.

 In a way, JESUS OF COOL is a bit preverse–after all why would someone make a record if the music industry is so awful?  From the sound of it, Nick Lowe is a huge masochist.  Speaking of twisted sensibilities, there’s nothing more twisted than “Marie Provost.”  The song is about a famous silent-film starlet who died alone, a shadow of her former glory–a victim of alcohol and talkies.   She’s also famous partly because her pet dachshund Maxie was discovered to have nibbled on her bloated corpse.  Such a sad tale…of course Nick Lowe had to write a hilarious pop song about it! With lines (cheerily sung) like “She was a winner/Who became a doggie’s dinner/She never meant that much to me.”   There’s dark, and then their’s Nick Lowe-dark.  The only other person who comes close to this type of shiny-happy-horror is my idol Warren Zevon.

Not everything is dark and twisted on JESUS OF COOL, there are a number of straight-up rockers: “Heart of the City” and “So It Goes.”  Both songs are about as normal as Lowe can get and should have been Top-40 hits, of course they weren’t.  One can’t help but wonder if they didn’t chart because Lowe did some much poking fun at the music industry big-shots.   The UK album includes a live version of “Heart of the City” while the US version has the studio version.   Both are good, though the live version’s frantic energy (and double length) wear a bit thin.   It pains me to agree with the label, but I think the studio version is what belongs on record*.

“So It Goes” isn’t Lowe’s most famous song**, but it’s his best in my opinion.  “So It Goes” is a perfect, sugar-rush of a song.  The chugging, thundering drum beat and the rapid-fire lyrics (seemingly about evil concert promoters and diplomats) are about as great as power-pop gets.  It’s the kind of song you think you can sing entirely after hearing it once, even though you’ve only deciphered about 1/3 of it.  I guess that describes JESUS OF COOL as a whole.  More than just being a manifesto against his corporate masters or a clever pop record, JESUS OF COOL is a phenomenally entertaining record from a true pop master.

Still not convinced that JESUS OF COOL is worth your time?  What if I were to tell you that Lowe out-Bay-City-Rollers The Bay City Rollers on “Rollers Show.”  I remember back in the 1990’s, when The Backstreet Boys hit it big, thinking to myself “These songs suck, I could do that!”  Well back in the 70’s Nick Lowe felt the same way about The Bay City Rollers (kids: go look them up).  Unlike me, Nick actually went out and recorded what is ostensibly the greatest Bay City Rollers song of all-time.  Part hilarious parody, part serious-deconstruction of a horrible fad–“Rollers Show” actually works as a respectably awesome song despite itself.  I defy you listen to “Rollers Show” and not:

A). Smile

and

B). Cheerily sing along.

It’s one thing to attack faceless suits and thick-necked show promoters, but attacking helpless children  is taking it a bit too far…right?  Maybe you think Lowe should pick on people his own-size/talent?  Well how about this: on the same record he skewers The Bay City Rollers he also out-McCartney’s Paul McCartney. That’s right, SIR Paul McCartney*** 

The first time I heard “Nutted By Reality” I nearly choked on my Coca-Cola.  A truly strange song, on an album of strange songs, “Nutted By Reality” parodies Wings-era Macca.   Specifically the BAND ON THE RUN song “Mrs. Vanderbilt.”  Even after a causal comparison between “Mrs. Vanderbilt” and  “Nutted By Reality” it’s hard to deny that Lowe was taking the piss out of one of the planets all-time greatest songwriters.  Just like Paul’s “Band on the Run,” “Nutted By Reality” starts off like one song before hard-shifting into something else entirely.  Beginning as a bouncy song about Castro (?) the song then turns into a jangly-song about visiting his sister.  It’s so bizarre it’s downright divine.  The parody of McCartney is so spot-on it stops being a send-up and damn near becomes a love-letter to the former Beatles-solo work.

If you’re at all pop person you owe it to yourself to check out JESUS OF COOL.

*God did that hurt.

**That honor belongs to “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” or “Cruel To Be Kind,” though most people don’t realize he wrote those songs as they’ve been covered ad nauseum.

***Though back in the 1970s he was “just” Paul.

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Classic Albums Revisited: MY AIM IS TRUE

Elvis Costello is one of those guys whose rep has suffered a bit as he’s aged. Kids today only know his as the “dude with the funny glasses.” Many more equate him to Phil Collins or Eric Clapton–a boring “adult-contemporary” singer-songwriter (Clapton’s last decade and a half of output as a bluesman has murdered his rock GOD status…what a shame). But in the beginning, before the duets with Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello was punk.
Punk!?

His aim is still true.

Not really the word many would us to describe Mr. Costello, but after re-listening to his first three (mega-classic) albums, that’s the word that kept springing into my head. Oh sure, there’s a lot of organ…but the attitude, snide delivery, and sheer velocity of the songs on MY AIM IS TRUE is pretty damn punk.

Prior to MY AIM IS TRUE, Elvis Costello was Declean MacManus. He worked a lame office job (for the cosmetics company Elizabeth Arden no less!) and he dreamed of being a rock star. No one was buying Costello as a rock star. He was this thin, pasty, awkward looking Englishman. His voice was…unusual. But he could write a good tune, so in 1976 Stiff Records hired him as a songwriter. They wanted him to write songs for their prima-donna Dave Edmonds. Edmonds, however, had to be convinced that he needed to record Costello’s songs. So, the label had Costello record his songs, with backing band Clover, in order to give Edmonds an idea of how the songs would sound.

The backing band went onto become The News (of Huey Lewis and The News fame) and Elvis Costello’s career was launched. The songs turned out so well, that the label decided to release them with Elvis as the star.

Recorded over a stretch of 1976, in about twenty-four hours, MY AIM IS TRUE is a breezy, blast of English pop. And I mean “blast”: most of these songs clock in around 2 minutes. That said, even though these songs are short, they’ve all well-constructed. Prime example, the doo-wop backing vocals and sharp hand claps on “Welcome to the Working Week.” The song is literally over in the time it takes for most songs to reach the first chorus. And yet this is a whole, complete thought. Amazing.

Costello, looking dapper (read: like Buddy Holly).

There’s a surprising amount of Biblical references on the record. “Miracle Man,” “Blame it On Cain” (where Costello blames his problems on Cain, even though it’s not really his fault), and “Waiting for the End of the World.” The first time I heard this record my mind just sorta glossed over all these allusions, but they’re there.

Love and it’s opposite emotion, anger also pop up frequently on MY AIM IS TRUE. The chilling “I’m Not Angry” encompasses both. My favorite track, “(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes,” which is both bleak and strangely comforting (and features some of my favorite Costello lyrics). It’s so snarky, it’s downright magical. This song features one of the most brutally honest/realistic depictions of the relationship between man and woman:

“Oh, I said “I’m so happy, I could die.”
She said “Drop dead”, then left with another guy.
That’s what you get if you go chasing after vengeance.
Ever since you got me punctured this has been my sentence.”

What guy hasn’t had that happen to him. Who hasn’t been so utterly rejected? Costello distills this experience, and makes it rock ‘n roll. Fucking brilliant.

“Less Than Zero” is another great snarky track, and marks one of the earliest manifestations of Costello’s (understandable) fear of Nazism/Fascism (which pops up again and again in Costello’s early work).

You want punk? Nothing’s more punk than:

“Turn up the TV, no one listening will suspect
Even your mother won’t detect it, so your father won’t know
They think that I’ve got no respect but
Everything is less than zero.”

or how about:

“A pistol was still smoking, a man lay on the floor
Mr. Oswald said he had an understanding with the law
He said he heard about a couple living in the USA
He said they traded in their baby for a Chevrolet”

Of course, not discussion of MY AIM IS TRUE is complete without talking about “Alison.” Next to “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?,” “Alison” is his most famous songs. It’s a quiet, love song (of sorts) about a lost love who’s gotten married to someone else. It’s sad and soulful.

“Alison”
Oh it’s so funny to be seeing you after so long, girl.
And with the way you look I understand
that you were not impressed.
But I heard you let that little friend of mine
take off your party dress.
I’m not going to get too sentimental
like those other sticky valentines,
’cause I don’t know if you are loving some body.
I only know it isn’t mine.

Alison, I know this world is killing you.
Oh, Alison, my aim is true.

Well I see you’ve got a husband now.
Did he leave your pretty fingers lying
in the wedding cake?
You used to hold him right in your hand.
Bet he took all he could take.
Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking
when I hear the silly things that you say.
I think somebody better put out the big light,
’cause I can’t stand to see you this way.

Alison, I know this world is killing you.
Oh, Alison, my aim is true.
My aim is true.

This song stands out like a sore thumb on MY AIM IS TRUE. Every time I listen to it, all the way through, it feels too much like a single. I can understand why, even to this day, people love it…but compared to the wit and irony of the rest of the record, “Alison” comes like a splash of cold water to the face. It’s refreshingly different, but also a little startling. This guy sings, kinda ironically–almost like he’s winking at you…then BAM! smack dab in the middle of MY AIM IS TRUE there’s this moment where his defenses lower a bit, and you’re kinda embarrassed–for him, because you know you’re seeing something unguarded, that you’re not supposed to be seeing. So, even though it’s an okay song by itself, “Alison” is one of the greatest songs (in my opinion) in the context of the album as a whole.

Go dust off MY AIM IS TRUE, it’ll surprise you how modern it still sounds.

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